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Meditations on a Toblerone

Dropping In columnist Rob Story talks nubile young women and a pilgrimage to Switzerland.
By Rob Story
posted: 02/22/2006

The Matterhorn's pyramid power makes Zermatt an iconic place to ski, oddly shaped chocolate notwithstanding.

There are two theories as to how Toblerone bars attained their signature triangular form. The Swiss candy's packaging hints at the first. Right there on the three-sided end of the box is a depiction of the Matterhorn: the 14,692-foot-tall pyramid located just a few dozen clicks from Toblerone's headquarters in Bern. Toblerone could hardly pick a more majestic, more Swiss inspiration for its patented dimensions. I don't much care for the second theory, which holds that old man Tobler, the candy maker's patriarch, regularly made business trips to Paris in the early 1900s and fancied the show at the Folies Bergères. His confection's shape may actually take after the burlesque's showgirls, who formed a human pyramid at the close of their act.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy heaping piles of nubile young women. I just don't think they're as inspirational as the Matterhorn. Instantly recognizable, the Matterhorn is to Switzerland what the Eiffel Tower is to France. It's a full-fledged icon. And it makes an excursion to Zermatt unforgettable—less like a ski trip, and more like a pilgrimage.

Maybe that's the wrong word. After all, pilgrims squeeze the life out of après. What with all the robes, they suck at doing body shots.

Nor do I want to come off as a snob who thinks the Alps are some God-given utopia of skiing and chocolate. I'm proud that in America we ski alpine in places that lack even a single alp—Wisconsin, for instance. Good for us. Still, skiing among big, snowcapped mountains is a joy of the sport. That's why I went to Zermatt last spring: I wanted to ski in the glow of an icon.

As icons go, the Matterhorn knows no equal. The Zermatt ski area calls itself an "Alpine Monument, and then backs it up by sprawling high and wide across the tallest concentration of peaks in Western Europe (38 of them above 13,000 feet). The span between Zermatt's tidy base and the 12,792-foot Gobba di Rollin equals 7,477 vertical feet. Vast tracts of off-piste surround 150 miles of trails reached by a cog railway, a high-speed underground railway, 11 trams, eight gondolas, 16 chairs, and 28 surface lifts.

About that suffix "horn: When glaciers erode a mountain on all sides, a pyramidal mountain peak remains, called a horn. Among the many horns, the Matterhorn—nearly sheer on all sides, with great bounding ridges that elegantly converge in a dagger-point apex—is a real horn god. It comes off more dramatic still by thrusting out of an otherwise uncluttered horizon.

The anti-L.A., Zermatt forbids cars. Zermatt's electric cabs (think golf carts with miniature payloads) ran so quiet I thought my ears had popped. I spent the first day bombing groomers and craning my goggles toward the most alluring peak in the Alps. The Matterhorn just stood there as I skied toward, around, and behind it. Yet it emanated intense potential energy, like a rocket awaiting liftoff, or an arrowhead trembling in its bow—or that pyramid casino in Vegas.

["Backcountry Tour"]

I joined a backcountry tour the next day. We met at the cog railway for the 8:24 train, which naturally left on time. After the cog gave way to a tram and then a gondola, we skinned for a couple of hours to a 12,473-foot promontory called Cima di Jazzi. From there, we dropped a Vallee Blanche—size glacier called Findelgletscher. Said Thomas, our Swiss-German guide, "Zermatt is halfway between Chamonix and St. Moritz. Not as dangerous as Cham; not as many rich people as St. Moritz. In Zermatt, he implied, difficult slopes and easy women coexisted happily.

I spent a night in a hut on the ridge that spills off the Matterhorn and forms the international border. The weathered wooden hut hovers almost 11,000 feet above sea level. A couple of Spanish snowboarders and I (the hut's only guests) ate spaghetti for dinner while gazing out over the Alps.

In 1865, Edward Whymper became the first person to summit the Matterhorn, the last major peak in the Alps to be climbed. As he and his Zermatt-based group stood on the pinnacle, they saw a rival Italian team climbing up. To announce their victory, they threw rocks at the Italians. Good times. But the karma wheel spun around instantly, and four of Whymper's colleagues died sliding roped-together off a cliff. It seems that Zermatters are still a bit rude. Maybe I had sausage stuck in my teeth, but I was systematically frowned at till proven innocent. Said Nadia, the Italian hut keeper, "The Swiss, they dislike everybody but the Swiss.

Having watched Coloradans snarl at Texans, I'm no stranger to tourist resentment. It makes no sense to browbeat one's economic lifeblood, but sometimes locals need a scapegoat to kick. Perhaps it's time for the Swiss to think more American, and soothe their Weltschmerz with packaged junk food. As the Matterhorn so ably reminds us, a selection of tasty chocolate pyramids is available from a company called Toblerone.

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